Fri | Sep 22, 2017

Parliament must agree on a more livable wage

Published:Thursday | January 28, 2016 | 1:00 AM

We tend to talk a lot about doing more for the poorest and most vulnerable Jamaicans, but when we got the opportunity to make a bold decision to improve their livelihood which would, over time, move them 'from poverty to prosperity', we squander it. There is, in my very humble opinion, hardly anything worth celebrating and/or congratulating the government about regarding the increase in the minimum wage from $5,600 to $6,200. It is unfathomable that a significant number of Jamaicans' income is to increase by a mere $15 an hour and there is nary an uproar - not even from those of us who complain about how insufficient our six-figure salary is while wondering how the poor manages!

It is crucial that we recognise and appreciate the urgency with which we must tackle income inequality and secure economic justice for all Jamaicans. To do so, we must start having open and honest conversations about this grave issue, especially in policy and decision-making spaces. Kudos to WE-Change (Women's Empowerment for Change) - the lesbian, bisexual and transgender women's advocacy organisation - on hosting an excellent Twitter Chat on this topic earlier this week (You can see tweets using #OxfamChat).

The Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) participated as well and highlighted that they are 'Paying attn [attention] [...] and taking note of all points especially those' related to the question from WE-Change about 'What practical, immediate, medium- and long-term advice would you give to policymakers to address economic inequality in Jamaica?' I recommend that OPM, despite the recent parliamentary decision, take steps to increase the minimum wage by well over $600. This would enable Jamaicans who earn a minimum wage to purchase more goods and/or services (referred to as purchasing power) rather than simply be able to afford only the same things they could the previous year.

CHALLENGE THEMSELVES

It is rather strange that the Parliament has agreed to a $600 increase in minimum wage despite the recommendation from the Planning Institute of Jamaica (PIOJ) that it should increase by 13 per cent or $728 to "be in line with the recorded average annual inflation rate for 2014, and the projected inflation rate for 2015, which totalled 13.3 per cent over the two-year period". According to Deidre Coy, PIOJ's labour market analyst, this would "be sufficient to assist the most vulnerable in maintaining reasonable purchasing power". Why was the increase reduced by $128? Is it that we don't believe that employers can actually afford to pay more? Of note is the decline in the real minimum wage by 8.2 per cent between January 2009 and May 2015, notwithstanding increases in May 2009 from $3,700 to $4,070, to $4,500 in February 2011, to $5,000 in September 2012 and $5,600 in January 2014. In 2009, consumer prices went up by 64.8 per cent but the increase in minimum wage was less - 51.4 per cent.

It was my sincere hope that the Opposition would have unequivocally rejected the recommendation, be revolutionary, staged a walkout from Parliament about this recent increase, and force the government to further review this measly increase. I am sure my two friends who earn minimum wage are in no way ecstatic about the additional $600 they will be getting. "Dat deh increase deh cyan do nutten," one of them said, hissing her teeth. Already $1,000 of their salary is the cost for transportation on JUTC, then there is rent and utilities and food. Some time ago they also expressed that they cannot save anything from their wages. You might be surprised, but a $5,600 wage per week is well above the poverty line of J$143,687 per person and J$543,059 for a representative family of five (extreme poverty is $93,755.43 for an individual and J$354.345 for a family of five).

If our parliamentarians are indeed serious about becoming a developed country, they need to challenge themselves and embrace the concept of 'transformative leadership' that was so eloquently expressed in Vision 2030, The National Development Plan of Jamaica, to see to it that a realistic livable wage is agreed on by all elected officials. Vision 2030 refers a lot to a prosperous economy which it places great importance on, as it has eluded a great many of our citizens throughout our history. It states, 'economic prosperity is the ability of an individual, group, or nation to provide shelter, nutrition, and other goods and services that enable people to live a good life.'

- Jaevion Nelson is a youth development, HIV and huma rights advocate. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and jaevion@gmail.com.